On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Major lesson for all in the news industry

The young reporter begins on the job by covering the
courts to learn accuracy and the law. Next, he is put on the crime beat to
appreciate the importance of confirming a story and building contacts.

Only the seniors get to cover politics. The Prime Minister and his deputy were
reserved for seasoned reporters who had proven themselves.

Today, the rules have all been broken. Fresh graduates, still wet behind the
ears, demand to cover big assignments, believing that their certificates make
them hotshot reporters.

Some insist on becoming feature writers when they don't even know what is and
isn't newsworthy. The result is a mile-long story that doesn't get read.

Unlike television, there is little glamour in the print media. The climb up the
corporate ladder is a slow one with few top appointments.

But over the years, journalism in Malaysia has grown. Not only do we have more
newspapers and magazines, the number of television and radio stations has

During the economic boom of the past decade, the salaries of journalists
improved tremendously, attracting better-qualified people.

Better qualified, however, need not necessarily mean more experienced.

Overnight, disc jockeys became radio deejays, part-time models became part-time
newsreaders and, more frightening, fresh journalists who had yet to make their
mark became editors.

The newer publications in the country are filled with editors who are unknown
to their more experienced counterparts in established publications.

Naturally, there is a price to pay for this state of affairs. Take the case a
few months ago of an Era Radio DJ who announced that then Yang diPertuan Agong
Sultan Abdul Aziz Salahuddin Shah had passed away when he was actually under
treatment at Singapore's Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

The radio station went to the extent of airing verses of the yassin immediately
after the announcement. No effort was made by the DJ to verify the information
he had received.

One Internet news website reported that a senior legal adviser, who was on
medical leave, was being investigated for corruption.

Never mind the fact that it was based on hearsay. The news website, which
enjoys attacking newspapers for lacking reliability, went ahead with the story.

Last week, The Sun ran a front-page story about a plot to assassinate the Prime
Minister and his deputy, alleging that local politicians were involved.

The report said the ''hit'' on Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Datuk Seri
Abdullah Ahmad Badawi would be carried out in a month or two by a hired killer
named ''Raja Commando.''

It was a sensational story and the editors in The Sun must have thought it was
a major scoop. Rivalry aside, the editors of most other newspapers who read the
Christmas day story must have been shocked.

Not because they had been beaten but most could instantly spot the numerous
holes in the story. It lacked depth and had too many unanswered

Assuming that The Sun editors believed that their sources were accurate, they
should have worked more on the details before running the story.

More important, they should have sought confirmation. They must get the
comments of top police officials, the PM and DPM. That's how newspapers
maintain the accuracy of their reports.

In all fairness, all newspapers make mistakes. Journalists are human, too, and
in the pressure of meeting the deadline and fighting for exclusives, errors do

In the case of the print media, it is more serious because it has wide appeal.
It doesn't have the privilege of the electronic media which can right a wrong

For newspapers, their mistakes are left staring at the journalists and readers
for the next 24 hours, at least. Damage control only comes the following

The Malaysian media is often criticised for their predictable reporting but
they have never resorted to chequebook journalism or sensationalism. Neither
has the established publications attempted to make up a story in an attempt to
sell newspapers. The case of The Sun is unprecedented.

The newspaper has admitted that ''there is no foundation to the allegations
contained in the article and they ought not to have been published.''

A senior editor of the newspaper, however, reportedly said all regular checks
had been done in pursuing the story. ''We also spoke to a deputy minister and a
deputy press secretary.''

The checks were obviously insufficient. The serious nature of the story
warrants more cross checks.

The Inspector-General of Police, his deputy or the Special Branch director
would be the best people to approach, considering the enormity of the

The predicament faced by The Sun should be a lesson to all journalists. It can
happen to anyone if they are not alert and careful.

No reporter from rival publications should rejoice over the fate of The

Journalism is a thankless job. At times it can be cruel, some would even say.
Journalists are never remembered for their exclusives but dismissed for a
single fallacy.

Newspapers, as many businessmen have found out, is a difficult investment. It
takes years for profits to be seen and, in Malaysia, the market is small and
the readership fragmented by several languages.

The advertisement cake is getting smaller with the economic downturn and the
ban on advertisements bearing names of cigarette companies will hit all media
companies badly.

The final lesson my predecessors taught me was: ''Always stay out of the
limelight. Stick to your job of writing news – never be a news item.''